First Lady Michelle Obama joined Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom at the Department of State today to honor recipients of the International Women of Courage Award. The award annually recognizes women around the globe who have shown exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk. Since the inception of the award in 2007, the Department of State has honored more than 70 women from 49 different countries.
During the terrorist occupation of northern Mali, Fatimata Touré channeled her 22 years of experience advocating for women’s health rights to fight resolutely against countless acts of gender-based violence. When extremists attacked the hospital in Gao, she assisted victims in relocating and finding much needed safety and care. As the conflict ensued, Mme. Touré provided counseling and shelter for victims of rape and forced-marriage and publicly denounced perpetrators of gender-based violence. Her actions drew threats from the extremists and, even as her own home was under assault, Mme. Touré hid beneath her bed and used her mobile phone to continue documenting acts of violence against women. Her limitless courage ensured that victims received medical care and that the abuse they suffered was not forgotten during the conflict. As the current head of the Regional Forum on Reconciliation and Peace in Gao, she continues advocating for justice and women’s rights.
Laxmi was 16 when an acquaintance threw acid on her face while she waited at a bus stop, disfiguring her permanently. Her attacker, a friend’s 32-year old brother, planned to use the acid to destroy Laxmi’s face after she refused to respond to his romantic advances. Many acid attack victims never return to normal life: they often go to great lengths to hide their disfigurement, many forgo education or employment rather than appear in public, and suicide is not uncommon. But Laxmi did not hide.
She became the standard-bearer in India for the movement to end acid attacks. She made repeated appearances on national television, gathered 27,000 signatures for a petition to curb acid sales, and took her cause to the Indian Supreme Court. Laxmi’s petition led the Supreme Court to order the Indian central and state governments to regulate immediately the sale of acid, and the Parliament to make prosecutions of acid attacks easier to pursue. Much is left to be done, and Laxmi continues to advocate on behalf of acid attack victims throughout India for increased compensation, effective prosecution and prevention of acid attacks, and rehabilitation of survivors.
Beatrice Mtetwa is Zimbabwe’s most prominent human rights lawyer. For more than 20 years she has fought against injustice, defended press freedom, and upheld the rule of law, accepting difficult cases that other lawyers have declined for fear of political reprisal. Despite experiencing harassment, assault, violence, and arrest, she remains a steadfast advocate for human rights, women’s equality and advancement, and social justice. Mtetwa defended two previous International Women of Courage awardees, Jestina Mukoko and Jenni Williams. She has also represented politicians, civil society activists, and local and international journalists including British and American correspondents arrested while covering Zimbabwe’s 2008 election.
Dr. Maha Al Muneef is the executive director of the National Family Safety Program (NFSP), which she founded in 2005 to combat domestic violence and child abuse in Saudi Arabia. A specialist in pediatric infectious diseases, Dr. Al Muneef has worked relentlessly to spread awareness about domestic violence and victims of child abuse. As the first organization in Saudi Arabia to address these issues, the NFSP has developed advocacy programs, reported on domestic violence and child abuse statistics in Saudi Arabia, and led efforts to provide services for victims of abuse. From 2009-2013, Dr. Al Muneef served as an advisor to Saudi Arabia’s Consultative Council, the Shura Council. In August 2013, after a multi-year effort, the Council of Ministers adopted landmark legislation to protect victims of domestic violence. As a courageous promoter of this issue, Dr. Al Muneef and the NFSP played an instrumental role in drafting and advising on the “Protection from Abuse” law, which defines and criminalizes domestic violence for the first time in Saudi Arabia.
These are just a FEW of the courageous, inspirational women honored at this years ceremony hosted by the First Lady.